This week, our special guest bloggers, Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC, authors of 100 Questions and Answers about Sports Nutrition & Exercise, offer expert tips on identifying overtraining syndrome.
The overtraining syndrome (OTS) is one of the most challenging diagnoses in the field of sports medicine, as there is no definitive test. Many of the symptoms of overtraining can mimic the signs of certain illnesses, so it is important that both athletes and coaches consult with qualified sports professionals, (physicians, sports dietitians, exercise physiologists, and athletic trainers,) to determine whether the athlete is potentially overtraining. Additionally, to complicate matters more, rarely do athletes experience identical symptoms. Some athletes may experience physical indicators only whilst others may experience a combination of both physical and psychological symptoms.
Athletes and coaches usually describe OTS as a condition that results in a steady decrease in physical and mental performance over time. Many athletes have described feelings of constant tiredness, persistent muscle and joint soreness, inability to focus, and/or a general sense of feeling burned out or staleness.
One of the chief causes of overtraining includes the lack of sufficient recovery (rest) between intense and/or frequent training sessions. It is generally accepted in the sports science community that endurance athletes are more susceptible to the condition than strength or power athletes. However, both types of training can result in the OTS if the athlete is not careful. Athletes who find themselves engaged in repetitive high intensity or long training sessions or who train daily or twice daily without adequate recovery are likely candidates for the OTS. High intensity training (a concept know as overreaching) is necessary for athletes to develop maximum strength, speed and power. After several days of overreaching, the athlete should follow up with a few days of reduced training intensity and volume (sets and reps) to allow the body to adapt and recover. Failure of an athlete to incorporate sufficient recovery between training days can result in maladaptation, resulting in burn out and possible injury. T o help avoid the OTS many coaches employ certified strength and conditioning specialists to assist athletes in the development of periodized training programs that incorporates regular fluctuations in training intensity and volume. Additionally, endurance and ultra-endurance athletes often utilize these programs and techniques to help them prepare and peak for major events throughout the season. Typical periodized training programs carefully manipulate the scientific principles of exercise to include intensity, frequency, duration and specificity and have been very effective in helping athletes avoid the OTS.
Once an athlete has been diagnosed with the OTS, very little can be done other than total rest to overcome the problem. There are anecdotal treatments such as supplement use, ice therapy, massage and dietary interventions that have been touted as remedies, but to-date none of these have proven to be effective in helping with the condition. Athletes and coaches should be educated on the potential signs and symptoms of overtraining and request professional intervention if they suspect that it is occurring. The sooner the athlete or coach seeks help the less chance the athlete will succumb to the overtraining condition.
Some of the more common signs and symptoms of overtraining include the following:
- A decrease in performance that lasts more than a week.
- A loss of appetite lasting more than a few days.
- Unintentional weight loss or inability to gain weight.
- Persistent muscle soreness or joint pain.
- Increased susceptibility to infection or illness.
- Poor mental focus or “drifting” during games or practice.
- Constant feelings of fatigue or tiredness.
- An inability to fall and stay asleep despite feeling exhausted.
- Increase in resting heart rate by more than 6 beats per minute over consecutive days.
- Feeling depressed, irritable or angry on a regular basis.
- Regular lack of motivation or desire to train and compete.
- A persistent decrease in strength, power or endurance.
A multitude of physical, psychological and physiological symptoms have been associated with the OTS. If an athlete experiences three or more symptoms for more than a week, he/she should seek professional medical help immediately to rule out possible medical conditions and, if necessary, begin the management of treating overtraining. If overtraining is suspected, a multidisciplinary approach utilizing medical experts, sports dietitians, exercise physiologists, athletic trainers, and coaches is the best solution to increase the potential for successful treatment.
More information can be found in 100 Questions and Answers About Sports Nutrition and Exercise by Lilah Al-Masri, MS, RD, CSSD, LD and Simon Bartlett, PhD, CSCS, ATC.
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